By Farhana Bibi Mahmud Munshi
Bismi llāhi r-raḥmāni r-raḥīm
All praises to Allah who sent His prophet as a teacher to mankind, and decreed that the first word of the Qur’an sent to him to be “Read!”
And may Allah’s mercy and salutations be on the prophet Muhammad ﷺ, the greatest teacher, the one who said, “Indeed I was only sent as a teacher”, the one who taught us everything we know of our creator, and of passing this test of life. The best and the purest of Allah’s mercy and salutations be on him, his family, his companions and all those who come after — those who inherit from him knowledge till the day of judgement.
Today is teacher’s day. A day where we honour, appreciate and shower our teachers with gifts. In schools, students would be putting up performances and preparing cards and gifts for these very special individuals who give much more than what they earn. We all have had teachers of course. Some we remember for life, and some we forget once we leave school. It is undeniable that some have impacted us more than others. We might have even met that one teacher who changed our path in life completely, while all others remain as faint memories only to be revived when we flip through our school’s yearbooks. If you have met one of those rare special ones, you’d consider yourself lucky.
Observing my teachers, I used to wonder why is it that some teachers impacted me more than others. Is it something that is natural in their character? Or is there a teaching methodology that can be learnt? They all go through the same form of teacher training in Singapore, yet, the effectiveness of their teaching method is on a wide spectrum.
Back then, I concluded that effective teaching is simply a gift. And like all gifts, some people are born with it, and some aren’t.
That was how I viewed teaching… Until I went to Dar al-Zahrā in Tarīm.
Dar al-Zahrā is a humble building with bare classrooms, having hardly any modern teaching equipment, and with every teacher sitting in front, on the floor, with a book in her hand. One would think such a school to be inferior to so many advanced modern institutions world-wide. Yet, my four years in this school impacted me in a way that 20 years of education prior to that did not.
And that was due to the teachers. It was mind-blowing. Every single teacher I met in Dar al-Zahrā, and in Tarīm, amazed me. They were all nothing short of exceptional. Beyond exceptional. And I am not exaggerating. Yes, I have met several good teachers before in life, but what I experienced in Tarīm was really, truly, extraordinary.
So of course, I began to question my earlier belief - is good teaching a gift a person is born with, or is there a formula that can be learnt? How is it that every single teacher here is an amazing teacher? SubhānAllāh, to find an entire school of amazing teachers! Who trained them?
Naturally, I looked at the founder of these schools – Al-Ḥabīb Umar bin Ḥafīẓ. I don’t think I have met a teacher more excellent than Al-Ḥabīb Umar. He was a teacher that could bring any lesson to life, make any concept understandable, and bring any subject into the hearts of his students till it becomes beloved to the student.
It was obvious. The teachers in Dar al-Zahrā were simply mirroring the way he taught.
So, what is this way? Can just anyone learn it?
Al-Ḥamdu lillāh, Al-Ḥabīb Umar himself explains this to us in his book Maqāṣid al Halaqāt (The aims and objectives of sacred knowledge) that there are 4 main principles of effective teaching, especially of the religion.
First, and the most important, he wrote, is to instill reverence of Allah’s religion in the hearts of those who study. And this can only be done if the teacher himself has deep reverence. As in a famous Arabic saying, “The one who does not have something cannot give it”. You cannot fake excitement, you cannot fake passion, and definitely you cannot fake love. This is what transforms a person from being merely someone who delivers information into a great educator and nurturer — one that changes lives.
Second, is to effectively communicate sacred knowledge to students and increase their religious understanding. This goes back to a teacher’s expertise, fluency and also love for a subject, more than the tools or technology available to aid in delivering information. While I do not deny that having the tools of our time helps in delivering information, at the core of the matter of knowledge delivery is that knowledge is transmitted from human heart to human heart. As the great Imam al-Shafi’i said, “Knowledge is light in the heart of a person and not lines in a book.” Effective teaching can only be done by a heart immersed in the subject matter.
Third, is to endow students with virtuous, Islamic character. And this is the point of education – to develop good human beings in service of their Creator and of the creation. And character is best taught in 2 ways: By direct demonstration, as what the companions experienced from the Prophet ﷺ and many of the righteous showed their own students, or if the teacher is unable to demonstrate it in himself, then to narrate stories of those with good character, as well as those with bad character. Telling a child not to lie is not as effective as telling them the story of the boy who cried wolf. Story-telling in teaching character is a Qur’anic method, as well as a prophetic method. Indeed, Rasulullah ﷺ was a master story-teller. It is necessary that teachers memorise stories and narrate them, from human heart to human heart.
And fourth, is to connect the hearts of students to calling to Allah and bearing the responsibility of conveying the Prophetic message. With the attainment of knowledge, 2 matters become obligatory – to act on it, and to transmit it. When a teacher realises that what he is transmitting is a trust, an amanah, delivered from generation to generation, he would not at all do a half-hearted job. Rather, he would put in everything he has to ensure the trust is fully delivered for it to be carried to others. This, as some scholars have said, is the zakat of knowledge.
Al-Ḥabīb Umar wrote these when he was in his 20s. Till today, these four simple principles form the foundation of effective teaching. They are not limited to religious sciences but can be applied to any subject. Every teacher and parent should learn these principles. There are classes available online teaching this book and these timeless principles.
In my final semester in Tarīm, I had the opportunity to do some teaching myself. In the school I was teaching in, I saw a poster put up right at the entrance of the school. It was advice from Al-Ḥabīb Umar to the teachers working in the school. This is a translation of it:
It is (on teachers) to deeply sense the greatness of this responsibility, and the weight of this trust that every teacher has necessarily taken on. Therefore, it is on every teacher to place within his sight a high goal in teaching. And to work hard in transmitting correct and clear information to the minds and understanding of these young ones. As well as to watch over their development, focus and refinement of character. And to have mercy as a foundation in teaching. For every teacher is a father, every teacher is a mother, entrusted with the responsibility of preparing every student to be of benefit to the masses, and to humanity as a whole, with their faith and righteous deeds.
It is no wonder all the teachers working by his guidance are amazing teachers.
May Allah teach us how to teach.
Muhammad ﷺ The Perfect Teacher
Now comes the question: Where did Al-Ḥabīb Umar get these perfect teaching methods from?
Sheikh ʿAbd al- Fattāḥ Abū Ghuddah has an excellent book “Muhammad the Perfect Teacher” where he mentions 40 teaching methods of the Prophet ﷺ based on hadith with brief commentary on each hadith. From the greatest teacher, we learn how to teach.
We are told that a great teacher teaches with conviction. We find that the Prophet ﷺ had the highest conviction in everything he spoke about. As Allah tells us about his conviction in the Qur’an:
The Messenger ˹firmly˺ believes in what has been revealed to him from his Lord, and so do the believers. (Surah al-Baqarah:285)
We are told that a great teacher teaches with sincerity. We find that the prophet ﷺ does nothing except that it was done solely for Allah. He is the leader of all those with sincerity. As Allah informs us about his connection to Allah in the Qur’an:
There certainly has come to you a messenger from among yourselves. He is concerned by your suffering, anxious for your well-being, and gracious and merciful to the believers. But if they turn away, then say, ˹O Prophet,˺ “Allah is sufficient for me. There is no god ˹worthy of worship˺ except Him. In Him I put my trust. And He is the Lord of the Mighty Throne.”(Surah al-Taubah: 128, 129)
We are told that a great teacher teaches with mercy. We find that the prophet ﷺ was sent as a mercy to the worlds and was the most merciful to his students. By his mercy, his students became the excellent human beings they were. Allah highlights this trait in the Qur’an:
It is out of Allah’s mercy that you ˹O Prophet˺ have been lenient with them. Had you been cruel or hard-hearted, they would have certainly abandoned you. So pardon them, ask Allah’s forgiveness for them, and consult with them in ˹conducting˺ matters. Once you make a decision, put your trust in Allah. Surely Allah loves those who trust in Him. (Surah Ali Imran verse 159)
Ya Mu’allim. O Teacher.
He ﷺ is the teacher who spent every moment of his prophetic life in service and struggle, just to bring this guidance to his students.
The teacher who stood the night crying to his Lord for his students to be saved.
The teacher who will be waiting anxiously by the bridge on the day of judgement watching his students cross, ready to help where help is called for. Pleading with his Lord, “O Lord, safety, safety…”
The teacher of mankind. Our teacher.
Our beloved teacher.
May peace and blessings of Allah be on him.
"We all know the feeling, where sometimes we work hard for an exam, not for any other reason except that the teacher put in so much effort into teaching us and we don't want to disappoint him.
There will come a day when the greatest of all teachers, will be in the court of God, waiting anxiously to see the results of his students. And on that day how can I look into his eyes, the eyes of my prophet, my beloved, the eyes of the one who put in his best for me, while I failed to put in my best" ~ my husband, during one of the mawlids held at Dar al-Mustafa.
On that day. The day where our results will be revealed. We have only one hope. To look at the face of our teacher. Our beloved teacher. And to see him smiling at us, reassuringly, that all will be okay.
Till then, ya Allah, send selawats onto him, to the number of words taught in creation, and to the extent of Your knowledge, and reward him greatly on our behalf as his students, his ummah, who have fallen terribly short in upholding his teachings. Give us the ability to make our teacher pleased with us.
May Allah unite us with our beloved teacher.
SallaAllahu alayhi wa sallam.
Writer graduated from National University of Singapore (NUS) under the University Scholars Programme. She then embarked on her journey in the Islamic studies full time, studying first in the established Zaytuna Institute summer program for Arabic Studies, then continuing in Syria, before spending 4 years in Dar az-Zahra, Tarim, Yemen.